Bloodless But Still A Tragedy


A week after Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama pulled Fiji’s latest coup, the situation in Suva remains a strange combination of tense and normal. Last week, the Fiji Senate was closed down by soldiers and the coupmeister played touch football in a park opposite the High Court, where a previous coupmeister, former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, was on trial for allegedly inciting a mutiny in 2000.

The President, Ratu Josefa Ililo, remains all but under house arrest in Government House, and the respected Vice-President, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, was dismissed, bundled out of his official residence, and sent to his home village in Bua. Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase similarly left Suva, choppered out to Nausori and then on an early morning flight back to his home island in the eastern Lau Group, effectively sent into internal exile.


Meanwhile amid the armed soldiers who patrol the streets locals get on with everyday life. Children have to go to school; those with jobs have to get to work; drivers get mildly seasick driving around the military checkpoints, tank traps, and nail barriers; the shopping has to be done; Suva’s water supply remains dodgy; and all this occurs in Fiji’s stifling summer heat, humidity, and often drenching rain. Truly, the Barmy, Balmy Isles.

As was the case in 1987 and 2000, Fijian civil society has initiated a campaign of non-violent resistance to the coup, and the local media have been the stand-out heroes of the crisis so far.

Just after Bainimarama announced he was taking power last Tuesday night, soldiers installed themselves in local radio, newspaper and the television station’s newsrooms, telling editors and journalists that they wanted no comments from the Qarase Government published or broadcast. But the Fiji Times‘s management told the military they would not publish rather than do so under military censorship, and Fiji TV’s late night evening news bulletin was similarly suspended. The part-government owned Fiji Daily Post,   whose editor is a cousin of Qarase and has a long history of supporting more nationalist Fijian positions, had earlier suspended its print publishing after threats from military sources, but kept updating its website.

Cyberspace quickly became a means of support, as international media freedom organisations publicised and criticised threats to the Fijian media. News Corporation, publishers of the Fiji Times, strongly supported its staff in their principled stand. The next day, media representatives met with the military and were assured they were free to report developments provided they did not incite any anti-coup demonstrations. The Fiji Times published on Wednesday afternoon, and radio and television bulletins were broadcast on schedule. The Fiji media remains in ‘business as usual’ but wary, mode.

Last week, a staffer from the Albert Einstein Institution, a leading nonviolence research and promotion think tank in Boston, USA, emailed a copy of the Institution’s 72-page Anti-Coup Handbook to every Fijian email address they could find. Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat program, which is broadcast during drive time on FM stations in Suva and Nadi, interviewed the handbook’s author, Dr Gene Sharp, about this effort last Friday.  Sharp’s message is that coups can be defeated by an organised civil society.

A group of young people spontaneously set up a democracy shrine at a house at Lami, just west of Suva on the main road to Nadi, with pro-democracy banners and signs on the fence and building. Meanwhile, a coalition of NGOs including women’s, human rights, environmental, and community media groups has formed and restarted the Fiji Blue campaign. Back in 2000, after the George Speight-fronted coup, civil society activists demonstrated their support for democracy and the rule of law with vigils, prayer meetings, and by wearing a blue ribbon (blue being the major colour in the Fijian flag). Using the slogan, ‘It’s a matter of principle Just Peace and Democracy,’ the same NGO coalition has reformed, this time also calling on supporters to wear black on Thursdays.

But the strong stand taken by civil society has not gone unthreatened.

Coup leader, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama

Early last week, leading human rights lawyer Imrana Jalal, and Executive Director of the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement, Virisila Buadromo, separately received threatening telephone calls, which they reported to the police. By the end of the weekend, several correspondents to the Fiji Times letters page had also been threatened, a former Labour Minister had been taken to the military barracks, interrogated, and forced to run several laps of the military camp’s oval under armed guard, and suspected soldiers broke into the pro-democracy shine’s compound, trashed the signs and banners, and threatened those in the house.

It is a tragedy that pro-democracy advocates have to risk their own and their families’ safety to support democracy, especially since it is many of these same people who protested against Qarase Government policies such as the amnesty for 2000 coup convicts, and overtly racist support for Indigenous Fijian development. The irony is that many largely agreed with Bainimarama’s criticisms of the Government but they do not agree with his methods. As one perceptive blogger put it:

I’m coming to realise exactly what I can’t stand about this coup. The most powerful of the forces opposed to the coup are among the most venal and reactionary in Fiji, and if the takeover unravels, it will be they rather than liberal civil society who will win. By destroying the one thing that can successfully oppose both arbitrary power and stifling customary authority i.e. the Constitution and the rule of law Bainimarama has set the clock back a generation. This kind of cure is a hell of a lot worse than the disease.

Another tragedy is the effect on Fiji’s fragile economy, which was finally seriously recovering after the mayhem of 2000, led by the tourism boom. Now that has crashed and staff layoffs meaning the loss of income for thousands of families will hit Fiji hard. About 35 per cent of the population were already living in poverty before the latest coup.

Yet another tragedy is that Fiji’s respected traditional institutions, the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) and the major churches, have been further discredited. Already seriously compromised following its impotence during the 2000 crisis and then the conviction of some of its members, including the then Vice-President, for coup crimes the GCC was glaringly incompetent throughout the lead-up to the latest coup.

Meanwhile, Fiji’s majority Methodist Church has been calling on members to pray for peace, and keep away from any civil disturbances
. Church leaders, such as the Catholic Archbishop, who have criticised the coup from strong theological grounds, have been criticised by other church leaders for ‘meddling in politics.’

Australia’s impotent Pacific diplomacy is another tragedy. At least New Zealand’s Prime Minister Helen Clark and Foreign Minister Winston Peters tried to broker a solution to the looming crisis (but the Bainimarama Screw was too far advanced). While the international community has universally condemned the coup, Fiji has been expelled from the Commonwealth, sanctions have been applied which will largely hurt the poor, and Fiji may loose income from UN-deployed peacekeepers, Bainimarama has so far been able to ignore overseas criticism and pressure.

Perhaps the final tragedy is Bainimarama himself. Regarded by most observers as the saviour of Fiji with his decisive actions at the height of the 2000 crisis while all other institutions and players were paralysed, Bainimarama may now forever be remembered by Fijians and by history in the same light as Rabuka and Speight.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.